Neuroses and Nets

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One of the reasons why Woody Allen movies have lost their box office appeal in recent years is his somewhat provincial focus on Manhattan, both as a location and as a source of character types. I love New York, but the self- absorbed quirkiness of his stock characters hasn’t aged well. Perhaps the best thing to be said for his latest movie, “Match Point,” is that it doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie.

Yes, it explores familiar themes of infidelity, obsession, and class structure, and Allen can’t resist occasional vintage Woodyisms, such as one char- acter’s observation about an off-screen couple, “They’re so right for each other. Their neuroses match perfectly.” But the move from Manhattan to London seems to have given him a new canvas and a new vision. The result is an engaging film with natural, subtle wit and a nair atmosphere that allows the audience to sink into the characters and savor the experience like a fine meaL It may be slow at times, but it’s worth the wait.

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a former tennis player, now a country club pro, might have had a great career except for the fact that the net balls too often fell back onto his side of the court. “I’d rather be lucky than good,” he observes wryly as the film opens. Luck – both good and bad – figures prominently throughout this film. Chris is soon befriended by Tom, a wealthy member of the country club who shares his interest in opera. He eventually marries Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) while falling hard for Tom’s fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Who could blame him? Chloe is rich, intelligent, perky, and pretty. She gets him a job in one of daddy’s companies and provides him a living to which he is delighted to become accustomed.

By contrast, Nola is sexy and aloof, with a sensuous mouth and a smoker’s husky voice, an actress who never seems to pass the audition. It’s a story as old as the hills, iconically presented in “Dr. Zhivago”: how can one resist the forbidden and needy Lara, when Tanya is so safe and predictable? Nola and Chloe even look like “Dr. Zhivago’s” Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin. In short, the guy is a despicable cad. But like Dr. Zhivago, he’s such a charming cad. Doesn’t he deserve to have what he wants?

This sense of privilege permeates the film. Chloe and Tom come from “the privileged class,” but Chris has been raised with all the privileges of a professional athlete. Serious tennis players (or figure skaters or virtuosi or any other elite performers) often become stiflingly self-interested, surrounded as they are by devoted coaches, trainers, fans, and parents whose sole purpose is to help them succeed in their game. Chris no longer has his entourage, but he is totally self-absorbed, caring only about the fulfillment of his own desires. The film is presented entirely from his point of view; he appears in virtually every scene until the denouement. His obsession is despicable, yet he never wavers in his sense of entitlement.

The film’s conclusion is wickedly satisfying, leaving several existential questions to linger over during dessert. Is one entitled to happiness? If so, at what cost? Is one justified in being completely, totally self-interested? What is justice, if net balls fall into one court or the other with no apparent reason? For Chris Wilton there is no question: He would rather be lucky than good.

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